Special Reports

Time to save the world, or... whatever

Fellow members of Generation X: So, like, no pressure or anything, but it's time for us to save the world -- if we dare. Just, whatever you do, do not under any circumstances actually tell anyone this is what we're up to. Because, really, nothing says cheesy Baby Boomer hubris like declarations about saving the world and stopping the war.

This is the gist of a just-published book, X Saves The World: How Generation X Got The Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking, by Jeff Gordinier. He's also an editor-at-large for Details magazine, a father of two and, like me, one of the 46 million Americans born between roughly 1961 and 1976.

Normally, a book like this -- with a title like that -- would send me running for the barf bag, and I will freely admit to rolling my eyes as I opened it. But Gordinier's intentionally overwrought, ironic title does make a point. Because if it seems like everyone -- and by "everyone" I meanthe media, Madison Avenue and other cultural powers that be -- went right from waxing rhapsodic about the Age of Aquariusto pondering the burgeoning power of the Gen-Y Millennials, it's not your imagination. Gordiniertold me he noticed it about two years ago, when he came up with the magazine essay that eventually became the book.

"Wewere in the midst of a media monotony, about the Boomers and the Millennials, -- it was either the Boomers are turning 60 and they'restill sexy, or it was about the Millennials and Britney, Lindsay, Paris," he said. "I just kept waiting for the Newsweek cover story on Generation Xturning 40, and I never saw it." My guess is that this happened because GenX began hitting the big 4-0 around the time Boomers decided 60 was the new40, and Diane Keaton started shilling products to "redensify" your skin. By the time Nora Ephron deemed it OK to feel bad about her neck, it was pretty clear Boomers wouldn't be relinquishing their hold on middleage until someone yanked it out of their hands. After all, if we're middle aged, what does that make them?

Much to my relief, Gordinier's book not a polemic against our Boomer Overlords or their crafty Millennial minions. Instead, it's an only occasionally cynical call for us to stop waiting for someone else to legitimize our power and instead, to just start using it, and in the grassroots, DIY and other "alternative" ways in which we're most successful. Except how do people raised to reject authority, with suspicion seemingly threaded into our DNA -- a generation now led by exactly the kind of geeks and square pegs who never really cared about changing the world at large -- now come together? And beyond that, how do we make sure we're using our powers for good, not for evil?

See, Xers aren't really known for being the type to violently seize control over anything, except maybe the keys to the car share or that last pristine vinyl copy of Let It Be floating around out there somewhere. "I think movements are suspect," Gordinier said. "As soon as you get into the idea of, 'We're going to create a movement,' they collapse by their own weight. They collapse under the weight of their own ambition."

Into all this steps Barack Obama, tagged the first GenX presidential candidate, a title which probably fits if only because he shares the same birth year 1961, with two of its founding fathers: author Douglas Coupland, author of 1991's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and filmmaker Richard Linklater, who birthed both the seminal Slacker and its stonerific (and, to my mind, equally prescient) cousin, Dazed and Confused.

"Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fightssince the '60s. It makes it very difficult for them to bring thecountry together to get things done," Obama has said. Conveniently, this broad message of change appeals equally to newly enfranchised young voters, disaffected Xers and Boomers who are still chasing the revolutions they're convinced they started years ago. It's an argument Obama has used, successfully, to neutralize Clinton's claims of being the candidate who represents change -- it's been weeks since we've heard Clinton talk about how she's been "making change" for the last 35 years.

Gordinier admits to being a bit seduced by Obama's rhetoric, even as he finds himself suspicious of his own emotional response. "If every Gen Xer woke up and said, 'I'm gonna vote for Barack Obama,' hewould win, because we're 46 million strong, so we probably could affectthe election that way." But that, in itself, flies in the face of the Xer's tendency to reject things the very things they value once everyone else catches on.

"I think that a lot of people are really drawn to Barack Obama," Gordinier said, "but we have this sense that we're gonna get burned.We're more skeptical about things."

And here, I thought it was just me who, in listening to Obama's supporters go on (and on and on and on) about how he makes them feel so darn good, so hopeful,that he's post-race/partisan/politics/cynicism, sometimes fights the urge to grab them by the shoulders and shake them. I hate to say it, but at times they almost sound like Boomers.

The key to harnessing the power of GenX, as Gordinier tells it, is to focus less on exacting change writ large and instead, affect the things closest to your own home. Instead of protesting outside a company's headquarters, stop buying their stock or their products. Instead of mounting a campaign to reform education nationwide, start a local literacy group to help your neighbors learn to read. It makes sense, if you think about it. Love-ins and bra-burnings, while emotionally satisfying, are more about attracting attention than they are about actually creating change.

Yes we can, Gordinier is saying, but only if we dare.